Olympics media village built on ‘sacred’ mass grave of African slaves

Descendants of slaves accuse developers of riding roughshod over history by destroying archaeological remains at site where journalists will stay for Games

Journalists covering the Olympic Games may find themselves caught up in a row over one of the darkest periods of Brazilian history, following claims that part of the media village has been built on a mass tomb of African slaves.

As reporters and cameramen start to arrive ahead of the opening ceremony next month, a community of descendants of runaway slaves, known as a quilombo , has said the site of the Barra Media Village 3, close to the Olympic Park, was built on land where their ancestors were buried and which they consider sacred.

Adilson Batista Almeida, the leader of Camorim Quilombo, accuses developers of riding roughshod over the history of bondage in the field by destroying archaeological remains at the site of an old sugar mill, and depriving the community of a public space for culture activities that celebrate its Afro-Brazilian heritage.

One Sunday morning a chainsaw came and devastated everything including century-old trees, Almeida said. I consider the ground as sacred because it is where my ancestors were buried.

The media village is a condominium Grand Club Verdant that will be sold to private buyers after the Game. The land was acquired in 2013 by the real estate developer Cyrela which felled hundreds of trees, destroyed their home communities football pitching and demolished the remaining the old slave owners house and the slavery-era sugar mill in order to clear the region for building.

It has been is accessible to journalists since 5 July. Few are likely to be aware of the dispute, which has received scant coverage in the domestic media.

Many in Brazil would rather forget the countrys record as the biggest importer of slaves in the world and the last to abolish the practice. By the end of the trading in 1888, somewhere between four and five million Africans had been sent to this South American nation.

Quilombos are symbols of resistance against that history, and under Brazils modern constitution, they are entitled to claim the lands they historically occupied. There are more than 3,500 of these communities in Brazil, many of which are threatened by real estate developers.

Brazilian slave traders inspect a group of Africans shipped into the country for sale. Photo: Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

The people of Camorim, which has been recognised by the federal government as a quilombo , have been trying to acquire the title to land in the area of the old sugar mill for more than a decade well before the Olympics were announced.

But the process was never finalise. A 2009 report from the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform( better known by its Portuguese acronym, INCRA) noted: Quilombo members havent yet made a final decision what land to assert, but in principle, they claim the land that is next to the church square, for culture purposes.

The Rio de Janeiro city government said it was unaware of any assert. The Media Village of Rio 2016 is a free enterprise, built on private property and following the urban parameters determined for the site, a spokesman said.

The developer, which also constructed the Olympic golf course and donated R $500,000 to the mayors political party, told the Protector: The acquisition of the property by Cyrela took place in a regular and lawful manner.

Local historian Rogrio Ribeiro de Oliveira, a prof at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, criticised the construction firm for not carrying out an archaeological study of the site.

During an excavation of the grounds of the nearby church So Gonalo de Amarante in 2000, a large number of human bones were uncovered, which are believed to be slaves.

Generally, slaves were interred nearby the church, therefore the chance is high that there was a burial in the current condominium( media village ), Oliveira said. It is highly likely that( archaeological) remains were destroyed , not only from the period of the sugar mill but also before, during the course of its pre-colonial period.

The site has been the subject of some controversy for other, most recent, reasons. Last November public prosecutors rescued 11 labourers on the project who were being housed in degrading conditions.

The aqueduct Figueira and Bakery today overwhelmed by the forest of the state park of Pedra Branca. Photo: Mauro Pimentel/ Vozerio

According to prosecutors, the accommodation provided for construction workers did not have drinking water, and was infested with cockroaches and mould. The only bathroom had no shower and a toilet that did not flush.

The workers were hired by subcontractors, but Cyrela had overall responsibility for the project and was ordered by prosecutors to pay compensation to the workers.

Prosecutor Guadalupe Couto accused the company of contracting out the main activities of the company in an irregular way with the objective of circumventing employees rights to lower the costs of labour.

Cyrela recognise irregularities committed by subcontractors but said it had insisted on improvements and taken all reasonable steps and dedicated full support to employees.

The quilombo community have also writes to Rio mayor Eduardo Paes to complain about environmental demolition. Maps indicate the site is inside the protected buffer zone around the Pedra Branca state park. City hall tells this is not the case and notes that 5,346 saplings were planted in the region to offset the felling of 357 trees for the project.

Community members also say water has been diverted to the apartment complex and they have lost an region that they used for recreation.

We suffered a lot with this, said Hrick da Silva Santos, a gardener living in Camorim Quilombo. We played football, swim in the river and played( in the forest ). It was our childhood.

Members of the quilombo strongly resisted the media village while it was under construction, but they are now resigned to its presence and are campaigning instead for a community center to be built on an adjacent, undeveloped parcel of land, which was donated by Cyrela to the municipal government.

Almeida said the centre would be devoted to the memory of the communitys slave ancestors. Their blood that was spilled I dont want it to be in vain. We want to fight for our space, our rights and our traditions so that our ancestors can look and see that today we are living in a better place.

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